Waity Katie’s Ladies

A brief history of British ladies-in-waiting.

Pippa Middleton, sister of Kate Middleton

For most of Kate Middleton’s public life, the term lady-in-waiting served as the linchpin for cruelly punning headlines about her slow-as-molasses-in-January romance with Prince William. Then, suddenly, the couple was engaged, and royal-watchers trained their lorgnettes on the question of whom “Waity Katie” would choose as her lady-in-waiting. More casual observers stateside wondered what exactly a lady-in-waiting does in this day and age, when the word lady is more often than not used ironically. “One looks upon all those things as dead and gone like ‘Chop off her head,’ ” wrote the son of one newly appointed lady-in-waiting—a century ago. It’s a role that seems even more out of step with the culture today, and yet the lady-in-waiting remains a vital part of the royal household.

The job certainly has evolved over the years. Many of the tasks that used to be allotted to ladies-in-waiting (helping her mistress dress, for example) have been assigned to other, paid members of the royal household. Today the ladies function more like social auxiliaries, helping the royal entertain dignitaries and manage her correspondence.Yet their true purpose has remained the same across the centuries: to provide appropriate companionship and wise counsel for a woman who can’t exactly make friends by joining a book club and can’t unwind with those friends over pints at a local pub.

Lady-in-waiting is itself a catchall term for a woman who serves a female royal. Among the queen’s attendees, there are more specific, tiered job titles, though the system isn’t strictly codified. The woman of the bedchamber is Her Majesty’s right-hand woman and plays a key role in making decisions about social engagements. Ladies of the bedchamber work on a rotating basis throughout the year. Theirs is a more ceremonial role; they are on hand for events like the opening of Parliament or fetes for foreign dignitaries, and the queen may have anywhere from a handful to a dozen. Finally, the mistress of the robes, often a duchess, is the most senior of the ladies of the bedchamber; she helps schedule the rotation for the rest of the group and plays an important role in the queen’s coronation.

One journalist and royal watcher, Charlie Jacoby, told me that the ladies-in-waiting’s task is, more or less, to “look decorous”; they help lend an air of formal propriety to the court. But while ladies-in-waiting are expected to look respectable, they haven’t always acted that way. More than a few, for example, have served a turn as their mistresses’ majesty’s mistress. Anne Boleyn might be the most famous lady of dual bedchambers, but Alice Perrers was reportedly the first to serve the court in that hybrid capacity. After Queen Philippa’s death in 1369, the increasingly senile King Edward III gave his wife’s jewels, among other favors, to the former damsel of the bedchamber. (The House of Commons eventually demanded that Edward stop funneling obscene amounts of money to her, and she was cut off and forced to swear on a cross that she’d never see the king again.) Some kings, of course, actively avoided seeking extracurricular distractions among their wives’ aides.  According to Anne Somerset’s exhaustive 1984 history Ladies-in-Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present-Day, King Edward the VII, son of Victoria, was a legendary philanderer, but his wife’s ladies tended toward the geriatric—all the better to set off the queen’s own considerable beauty. When the Shah of Persia visited in 1902. he was not impressed with their collective charms, and, misunderstanding their role at court, offered his royal colleague some friendly advice: “These are your wives? They are old and ugly. Have them beheaded and take new and pretty ones.”

Through the years, ladies-in-waiting have helped out with plenty of tasks that aren’t in the current job description. In the Elizabethan era, for instance, the ladies were expected to empty the queen’s chamber pot. In 1864, Lady Macclesfield successfully helped deliver Queen Alexandra’s premature baby. Charlotte Knollys, another of Alexandra’s attendants, literally took a bullet for the queen when an anarchist fired on the royal couple in 1900. (She survived; the bullet landed in her bun.)  Generally, though, life with Her Majesty was rather more prosaic. A 1724 letter from one attendant described the drudgery thus:

To eat Westphalia ham in the morning; ride over hedges and ditches on borrowed hacks; come home in the heat of the day in a fever (and what is worse a hundred times) with a red mark on the forehead from an uneasy hat. They must simper an hour and catch cold in the Princesses’ apartments from thence to dinner, and after that, till midnight, walk, work, or think, as they please.

Based on that description, a ladies-in-waiting vacation package sounds like a pretty nice deal to this cubicle-dweller. Even today, the gig still doesn’t exactly sound like coal-mining: It’s flexible and part-time for most of the ladies. The positions are currently unpaid, according to a Buckingham Palace spokesman, but the women are reimbursed for expenses, some clothing, and travel  and occasionally given quarters in the royal residence or apartments in London. There’s also the cachet factor: Many ladies-in-waiting are made members of the Royal Victorian Order, which honors personal service to the monarch, and receive entrée into the very highest of high society. There’s no requirement, as one might imagine, that ladies-in-waiting be of aristocratic origin. That’s why, for instance, Kate Middleton could appoint her sister Pippa as her primary lady-in-waiting, as she’s rumored to be considering.

Still, anyone who accepted such a role would need to be a woman of means to have such large chunks of volunteer time available for god, (future) queen, and country. And since ladies-in-waiting are meant to provide  advice on navigating the very particular social thorns of the royal scene, the middle-class Middleton may very well choose someone more steeped in that world than her fellow Wisteria sister. Jacoby suggested Lady Sarah Chatto, a fortysomething niece of Queen Elizabeth II, as an example of a savvy pick. (Lady Chatto was literally born into this world; her mother gave birth to her at Kensington Palace.) Middleton could later fill out her ranks with a few of her own confidantes and agemates.

It’s the kind of loose-goosey glamour-industry setup—and possible clash of cultures—that sounds like the perfect reality-TV premise. So if anyone from either Bravo or Buckingham Palace happens to be reading along, consider that a pitch.